The Trials of Mandla Dube 

During a mysterious psychotic episode, a South African filmmaker threatened to kill his children. Did our justice system protect his family over the next year — or simply destroy it?

Wednesday, Feb 8 2006

Early on the morning of July 3, 2004, a battered green Ford Aerostar pulled out of a parking lot high in the hills of Griffith Park. The minivan rattled down Western Canyon Road, rounding hairpin turns edged by 100-foot cliffs. But when it reached the broad curve at the bottom of the incline, the car plowed straight ahead. As a trio of joggers dived for cover, it rolled down a shallow embankment into a pine grove and slammed into a tree. Screams could be heard from inside the van, and then children began jumping out. An 8-year-old boy emerged with his 11-year-old twin brothers. Two teenage boys followed, and passersby helped them pull a 4-year-old out of his car seat.

By this time, the driver had appeared — a short, wiry black man with blood pouring from a gash in his forehead. He shouted for the kids to get back in the van. When the 8-year-old cried, “Daddy, no,” the man ran to the street and lunged in front of an oncoming car, which barely missed him. Park rangers found him soon afterward, pacing in circles and mumbling incoherently. The only words they could understand were “My beautiful wife has left me. My beautiful wife has left me.” The rangers handcuffed the man, and everyone waited for the police ?to arrive.

The driver, as it turned out, was a 33-year-old South African filmmaker named Mandla Dube. The four younger boys were his children, while the teenagers — Patrick Wilkinson, 16, and his brother Adam, 19 — were stepsons of the renowned jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Dube (pronounced “DOO-bay”) was supposed to be taking all the kids to a shoot in Compton, but he made a detour to the park. After drinking a concoction of unidentified herbs, Patrick and Adam said, Dube began behaving strangely. He demanded that they remove their shoes and hike a trail near Griffith Observatory. He struck Patrick with a stick. During the walk, the two boys told investigators, Dube declared, “I killed my wife this morning, and now I’m going to kill you.” Back in the van, they said, he made the threat again, and apparently tried to carry it out.

click to flip through (4) Illustrations by Jeff McMillan
  • Illustrations by Jeff McMillan

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Aside from Patrick, who dislocated his shoulder, only Dube suffered a serious injury. On the way to Cedars-Sinai in an ambulance, Dube told the EMTs that he had killed his children and cut off his penis. At the hospital, doctors administered a sedative and stitched up his head wound. The next day, he was charged with six counts of attempted murder and five counts of child abuse. Each carried a possible sentence of 15 years to life. Bail was set at $3 million. Dube was placed in the downtown jail known as Twin Towers.

It soon became apparent, however, that this case was more complicated than it seemed. To begin with, Dube’s beautiful wife had not left him. He had not murdered her or mutilated himself. Once his head cleared, he claimed that he had never meant to kill himself or his passengers. Eventually, even the prosecutors seemed to have their doubts. For more than a year, a host of interested parties — friends, family members, lawyers, hired psychiatrists and, not least, Dube himself — would struggle to understand what happened on that July morning. What caused an apparently sane man to suffer a psychotic break on a day he had awakened happy? Why would a caring father, with no history of violence, behave as Dube did? Was it a case of reefer madness, as the prosecution suggested? Was it a little-known side effect of caloric deprivation? Or was the crash in Griffith Park the climactic stage of a multivehicle cultural collision?

Lindiwe Dube stood in front of a tired-looking bungalow on Heidleman Road in East L.A. A tiny woman with a striking face — huge, intelligent eyes; button nose; full lips — she wore a violet top and cropped white jeans. A 6-foot-long royal python lay draped about her shoulders. Outside, her house was a tan stucco shoebox; inside, it was all High Revolutionary Afro-Funk: ebony sculptures, drums, and a sofa draped with an African batik; posters of Marley, Tupac and Malcolm X. Four-year-old Nkosinati toddled about in a “Free Mandla” T-shirt.

Lindiwe poured two cups of chamomile tea and told her story in lightly accented English. The events leading up to the crash began in 1996, she said, when the couple was living in Mandla’s hometown of Mabopane, a black township outside Pretoria. That year, Dube shot Hugh Masekela’s first music video, “No More Crying.” The South African pop-jazz pioneer, internationally known for such hits as “Grazing in the Grass” (1968) and “Bring Back Nelson Mandela” (1986), was at a low point in his career, and the video — in which Lindiwe played the pretty girl who sat on his lap — helped Masekela climb out of the hole. It also helped launch Dube’s career as a cinematographer.

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